Common Child and Teen Reactions to Trauma or Stress
There are many ways a child or teen may behave, think, or act following a stressful event or trauma. Some children may not show much change in behavior, while others show drastic changes in behavior. Listed below are some of the common reactions to trauma you may see in your child or client. It’s also helpful to read this list together and circle the ones the child is experiencing. The bold text serves as an example of a dialogue you can have with the child to help explain the symptoms.
Not wanting to think about it
Becoming upset or shutting down when others talk about the event in front of the child, or the child actively tries to ignore thinking about what happened. Sometimes people ask about what happened or talk about it when we don’t want them to. This makes us think about what happened, and that can be painful. Sometimes we still think about it even when others don’t.
Thinking about it all the time
A child may ruminate about a stressful event as an attempt to process what happened. Sometimes our brain gets stuck on a loop that keeps playing in our heads, even when we don’t want it to sometimes. This is our brain’s way of trying to understand what happened, only it becomes a problem when it gets stuck.
Reminders can cause upsetting feelings in the child, which lead to the child avoiding certain situations. If the child cannot avoid a reminder, a caregiver might see the child shut down, cry, or throw a tantrum. Reminders can be people, places, seasons/anniversaries, or objects and activities. Sometimes certain things like places or holidays we used to do or enjoy, or people we used to see, remind us of the terrible thing that happened. Since it hurts or really upsets us to think about it, we start feeling upset when we are around these situations.
Nightmares or trouble falling or staying asleep can arise following a stressful event. It can be hard to fall asleep with thoughts of the stressful event running through your mind. Sometimes this can lead to nightmares, and it can be really hard to go back to sleep.
Difficulty remembering or recalling details of the stressful event, or even every day events, can happen following a trauma. This is common occurrence and sometimes in the future it can become easier or harder to remember. Sometimes the stressful event is so scary or terrible that our memory doesn’t work the same way. Sometimes it feels like we are in a fog and can only see glimpses of what happened. Some days the fog feels thicker, and other days thinner.
Trouble concentrating or focusing
Difficulty following and completing a task or sustaining attention on an activity is a common reaction to stress. Sometimes we spend so much time feeling nervous or thinking about what happened that it can be really hard to focus on schoolwork or hold conversations with people.
Waiting for something bad to happen
Some children/teens may be constantly worried or fearful of another stressful event occurring. After something really awful happens, our brains can become stuck on the idea that something really bad will happen again at any time. While this is our brain’s way of trying to help, it often makes us feel scared all the time.
Get scared easily
A child may become more jumpy than usual when someone walks up behind him/her or says his/her name unexpectedly. Sometimes our bodies are constantly prepared for action and jump when someone does or says something unexpectedly.
Irritability, anger, or an increase in melt-downs can be responses to trauma. After the terrible event, some people feel like a volcano inside, ready to explode at any minute. Sometimes thinking about the event itself makes people angry, and other people just feel angry all the time.
Feeling guilt or shame
Guilt about what happened or what the child did or did not do during the trauma can be a response to a stressful event. Shame may also be a response, and the child may not want to disclose details or what happened. Sometimes after a stressful event, a person might not want others to know about what happened or might want to keep it a secret. Other people feel really bad about what happened or what they did or didn’t do during what happened.
Sadness, grief, or loss can occur after a stressful event. In some situations, a child may lose a person, or something important to him/her. Sometimes after something bad happens, we feel really sad about it. We might miss a person, or the way things used to be, and feel upset when we think about it.
Feeling bad about yourself
Trauma or severe stress can impact an individual’s self-esteem. A child may feel as if no one likes him/her, and may push people away or give up trying to make connections with people. This can lead into a feedback loop, in which lack of connection feeds the “nobody likes me” thought. Sometimes a stressful event can leave us feeling bad about ourselves or as if nobody likes you. This makes it harder to be ourselves and make friends.
Feeling out of control
Some children or teens may comment that they feel like they’re “losing it” when experiencing some of the above symptoms. A mental health professional may be able to help with processing what happened and teaching coping skills for these symptoms. If you feel one or more of the symptoms above, you might feel like you’re going crazy or losing control. It can help to talk to a counselor or therapist about some of the problems you are having. You are not going crazy, you are experiencing common reactions to stress or trauma.
More health issues
Sometimes following a trauma, a child may report an increase in somatic complaints such as stomach or head hurting. A child that has witnessed domestic violence may hurt in the same part of their body as the person who was the victim of domestic violence. Stress can impact our bodies sometimes and make us feel more headaches or tummy aches than usual. Some people get sick more often or find themselves hurting more often.